As you leave the Virginia Center for Creative Arts in Amherst, you pass a sign that reads “Welcome to the Real World.” Of course, the real world can be a place where artists struggle to make ends meet, or juggle equal commitments to making art and making ends meet.
A show that opens September 10 at PVCC’s Dickinson Building will display some of the concepts local painter Sharon Shapiro fleshed out last year at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts.
Not so on the inside. And thanks to a grant from the Dave Matthews Band’s Bama Works Fund, more than a dozen area artists will have their stays subsidized, VCCA announced last week. The fund will bankroll a good chunk of residency costs for 14 local artists at the center. “Basically, it more than doubled the number of artists we were able to take from the greater Charlottesville area,” says Lexie Boris, communications director at the center, which is open to artists outside the region, too.
Founded in Charlottesville nearly four decades ago, the VCCA operates under a simple idea: Artists shouldn’t be banished to a life of misery and poverty in their quest to make the world a more beautiful place. (A radical idea, indeed!) The Amherst center is one of the largest artist communities in the nation, hosting around 350 artists per year.
Here’s how it works: Artists are asked to contribute 25 to 50 percent of the cost of hosting them—which, left unsubsidized, is not cheap—at around $180 per night. At VCCA artists are provided with meals, a private studio and bedroom during their residencies, which last anywhere from two weeks to two months. They exercise at nearby Sweetbriar College, chat with other artists over meals and spend lots of time at work.
The list of VCCA alums is impressive: UVA’s Judith Shatin spent some time here, as did Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Del Tredici, widely recognized as the father of neoromantic music, and Wicked author Gregory Maguire. (It also claims to operate the largest international exchange program of any artist community in America, with centers both in Virginia and at a facility in Auvillar, France.)
Another noted alum is local painter Sharon Shapiro, winner of the venerable “Best Artist” distinction in last year’s Best Of C-VILLE issue. Shapiro spent about $30 per night on a residency. VCCA is “fertile ground for being creative,” she says. “Even though you’re not really out in the country”—you pass its entrance on the way from Charlottesville to Lynchburg–“you feel like you’re removed from the rest of the world.” It’s also an important place where artists “take time for yourself and your thoughts,” says Shapiro.
“I have a daughter who is a teenager. One of the main distractions in life is children—they’re great, but they take up a lot of time.”
The result? “I got done in two weeks what I would have gotten done in three months at home,” says Shapiro. For Anne Carley, another alum, distractions include a consulting business that supports the arts and technology. She’s working towards supporting herself with music. A crucial step toward that goal was a two-and-a-half week residency at VCCA, “an environment that permitted me to blot out the world and just pay attention” to a song cycle she worked on.
“One of the beauties of the VCCA experience for me was the sense of community,” says Carley. “We all were there for the same reason—to work on our stuff. There was a basic understanding shared by everyone there.”
“It buoyed us all.”